by Matt Nute
Disclaimer: Characters belong to Marvel. I'm not making any money off this, nor should anyone else. I hate to tell people "Read CABLE", so I won't. Read JSA instead. But after you finish this story.
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Blaquesmith crouched, his hunchbacked body swaying gently as he stepped sideways, his bare feet shuffling in the dust. His long-fingered hands twitched quickly over the haft of the spear he held before him, parallel to the ground. Out of an inhuman face, dark black eyes blinked, and a small pug nose sniffed as his mouth curved in a smile.
Across the dusty patch of worn grass, his opponent circled, her weapon held in a low guard stance, her grip low and loose. Her brown hair was tied back into a severe bun, accenting her long neck. Her body was trim, the physique of a youthful warrior. And warrior she was, evident in her balanced stride, maintaining an even distance from Blaquesmith as they circled the ring. She was Aliya, one of the most zealous warriors of the Clan Askani. She had led platoons into battle against the minions of the High Lord, and slain enough enemies to fill a dozen churchyards, if such a thing still existed. She was graceful, almost dancing with the weapon of destruction in her hands.
She was also twelve years old.
To Blaquesmith, however, she was no child, but a fierce opponent, against whom he would test this weapon he held, its matched twin clutched in Aliya's grasp. Simple wood, or so it appeared. An unadorned haft, marred only by wrappings of stained ribbon and tape. The head of the weapon was an angular blade, designed to tear, stab, or slash as the wielder struck.
But this was no mere spear. In the hands of a trained warrior, it, like any other weapon, could slay dozens. But in the hand of one of the psionically-gifted Askani, trained for years in combat both physical and mental, it could decimate an entire legion.
Blaquesmith called it a "psimitar".
He had spent the past ten years across the sea, by the order of the Clan Mother, the Founder of the Askani. She had bade him journey to the ruined cities of a dead nation, and there find information and material to construct the Askani the one weapon that could turn the tide of the war. Blaquesmith, loyal for decades to his mistress and friend, had agreed and made the harrowing trip, and succeeded in his mission.
When Blaquesmith returned, he found the Mother Askani in a coma, her mental strength totally devoted to a task none knew, save for he. Only Blaquesmith shared the knowledge that the Mother Askani was ensuring the safety and survival of the Chosen One, he who would later be dubbed Askani'son. He alone knew that the Clan's beloved Mother, Rachel Summers, would give her life to save that of the Askani'son.
Cursed with the knowledge of the inevitable, Blaquesmith decided to test his weapon in combat. Before him stood one of the finest Askani warrior-women. Around him, nothing but a featureless clearing in the middle of the forest. And between them, a mere eight meters of grass.
Aliya held her psimitar low, hands spaced evenly near the blunt end. Blaquesmith had seen the technique before, and was not impressed. Many Askani soldiers who were physically weaker than their fellows depended on using their weapons as levers, sacrificing control for speed and power.
He spun the spear around his hunched back, gripping the haft near the angular spearhead with one hand, bracing it along his forearm and shifting his weight. With graceful slowness, Blaquesmith extended his empty hand towards Aliya, partly to shift his balance, and partly to gauge her response.
The first step of any battle was always the physical. Distance, power, speed, strength: all were factors that could decide life or death, victory or defeat. And in a battle between equally skilled adversaries, endurance was often the deciding factor.
With a rattlesnake-quick maneuver, Blaquesmith shuffled forward, whipping the blunt end of the staff around low at Aliya's shins. The girl dropped the butt of her psimitar to the ground to intercept the blow, and the two weapons clattered together, the sound of wood on wood echoing through the vale.
Moving with the momentum of the initial attack, Blaquesmith spun, leaning back under a vicious backhand sweep from Aliya. He watched the sharpened spearhead whistle past his flat face, and rolled with the motion. Springing backwards off his free hand, Blaquesmith landed, then lunged forward, stabbing with his psimitar. Aliya's weapon was a blur, knocking the thrusts aside, but slowly backing away.
As he advanced, increasing his attack, Blaquesmith's mind grew preternaturally calm. The Askani were trained to achieve a state of "clear", a sort of battle trance in which they were aware of themselves, the battle, and the entire field of their senses simultaneously. Trained psis like himself could also read the surface thoughts of their opponent, predicting their next move like clockwork.
Unfortunately for him, Aliya was one of the more versatile psis in the Askani, and knew how to use her telepathic gifts to shield her intents from Blaquesmith. As the wizened artificer accelerated his assault, his questing telepathic probe encountered a resistance like a steel wall, featureless and flawless. Part of him was annoyed at the denial of a tactical advantage, while the rest of him was wholly impressed that this young girl had developed such strong shields. Of course, the Askani had been in nearly constant war with the Canaanites since he had left on his voyage of discovery.
Aliya responded to the telepathic probe with a swift slash to Blaquesmith's head, which he barely deflected with his psimitar. Her attacks were precise, vicious, he noted. It was no surprise she was one of the most feared warriors of the Askani. But, he reminded himself, he had trained with the Askani in the shadows for longer than Aliya had seen sunlight.
Anger flashed across Aliya's psi-shields as she pivoted, driving a foot blindly into Blaquesmith's midsection. The small man huffed out his breath, leaping backward with the impact. In the moment of hesitation, Aliya pressed her advantage, striking with both ends of her spear in rapid blows to her opponent's ribs and shoulders.
Striking out with an open hand, Blaquesmith cried aloud in an ululating waver, that of the Askani battle language. Telekinetic energy coalesced in his palm and burst out, flinging Aliya across the grass. Gathering his strength, Blaquesmith focused his mind through the psimitar. He felt it vibrate almost imperceptibly, the circuitry inside the weapon channeling and amplifying Blaquesmith's natural ability.
He swept the weapon in a wide arc, telekinetic force ripping up the ground at Aliya's feet as she scrambled to regain her concentration. Simultaneously lunging at her with the psimitar, Blaquesmith began battering telepathically at her psi-shields, attempting to divide her concentration. He felt that telltale flash of anger again, and instead of retreating or advancing, held his ground and sent a wave of force through his psimitar.
Aliya's blow was almost swifter than he could see, but his block was unerring. The two weapons collided again, but this time Blaquesmith released the energy pent up within his. Blue-silver light arced between them as pure psionic force repelled the weapons from each other. Blaquesmith set his feet, holding his ground. Shocked by the interaction of the psimitars, Aliya's grip faltered, and her weapon was launched from her hand.
Blaquesmith raised his spear, as if to deliver the coup de grace. Reacting out of instinct, Aliya kicked her feet around, sweeping her would-be vanquisher's legs out from under him. Blaquesmith braced his arms against his spear as he flipped backwards, landing in a low guard position. Aliya reached out a hand, telekinetically whisking her discarded weapon to her and regaining her feet.
From across the circle, Blaquesmith blinked in incredulity. Even having invented the psimitar, having designed the psi-amplifier mesh embedded in its haft, he had taken months to align himself enough with his weapon to telekinetically summon it so effortlessly. And Aliya's telekinesis was not especially great, he recalled. Her mental strength lay in her almost fanatical discipline and her shielding. With time, the Mother Askani had hoped, Aliya would grow into a fine leader, perhaps even a general under the Askani'son.
Blaquesmith spat derisively to cover up his amazement. Gathering his mental focus, he advanced toward Aliya once more, sidestepping in a weaving pattern. For her part, the young girl-warrior twirled her psimitar before her as if it was a common staff. Blaquesmith snarled, feinting quickly with his weapon. Aliya saw through the ruse and advanced, parrying the feigned thrust violently, throwing Blaquesmith's weapon to the side.
The elder warrior smiled, gesturing with a finger. Light coalesced at the tip of his psimitar, like a tiny star. He twisted his staff in his hands, and the light flared into a flame, covering the weapon like an aura. Aliya dodged backwards as Blaquesmith brought the blunt end of the weapon around in a corkscrew strike, intending to make her draw her psimitar in close. Instead, Aliya ducked under the strike, stabbing at Blaquesmith's squat legs.
The experienced psi danced away from the desperation blow, lashing out with his blazing psimitar. Aliya rolled, but not quickly enough. The blade caught her on the upper bicep, cutting and searing a gash down her arm. She gritted her teeth as she smelled the acrid scent of cauterized blood. Her left hand was partially numbed, so she shifted her stance to protect that side.
Blaquesmith waved his weapon again, sending a wide wave of telekinetic force at his opponent, overbalancing her. With two quick leaps, he was atop her, battering her psimitar aside. She replied to his barrage with a swift elbow strike, catching him on his peaked chin. As his head snapped back, Aliya slammed her forehead into his breastbone, pushing him back. Quickly, she rolled forward on top of him, drawing back her psimitar, blade aimed at Blaquesmith's throat.
The elder fighter felt the wash of anger seep through Aliya's nigh-impervious psi- shielding, giving away a chink in the armor protecting her psyche. Closing his eyes, Blaquesmith played a hunch, and attempted to channel his telepathy, not through his psimitar, but that of Aliya, pointed at his neck.
It was like diving from an icy plain into a ring of fire, he thought. The shock of anger, pain, and barely-constrained rage overwhelmed him, causing him to bring his own psi-shields to full strength. He pushed with his mind, clearing a channel through the fires of Aliya's anger like a rock into a pond.
Blaquesmith opened his eyes, kicking Aliya's stunned form off of him. She rolled weakly in the grass as he recovered his psimitar and stood above her. Gently, he placed a hand over her forehead, and lightly tapped the blunt end of his weapon against her chest.
"The duel," he rasped, "is finished."
Two hours later, Blaquesmith lurked in the shadows of the campfires, shambling in his rolling gait from hut to hut. Finally, he arrived at the domed tent, set away from the other buildings, that had become the temporary infirmary for the Clan Askani, at least while they held this piece of ground. The war with the Canaanites required the small guerilla army to stay constantly on the move, rarely making camp for more than a week in the same location during any one campaign.
Brushing aside the hide that served as the infirmary's door, Blaquesmith waved his long-fingered hands, dismissing the healers. Noting the condition of the patients, he shuffled over to an isolated bunk. As the Clan's 'shadow warrior', he had often found himself isolated, unable to relate to those whose side he stood by in battle. Many times the Clan Mother had sent him on missions of reconnaissance, where he would be alone for weeks behind Canaanite lines, with only the tenuous psychic link to Rachel as his sole link to the Clan.
The Askani warriors were women, trained for elite combat. The men in their ranks were few, as most male children in the blasted lands were taken by the Canaanite conscription squads at a young age. Everyone grew hard in these times, and bravado often turned to a self-sacrificing death wish on the field of battle. So, many men joined the Askani, knowing they would be little more than suicide troops in the moments of chaos, their bodies perhaps being the vanguard of an assault on a fortified stronghold or ill-defended convoy.
Soldiers lived, soldiers died. That was. Tens of thousands since Blaquesmith had walked the path of the "Clan of Outsiders". Walking among the wounded in the tent, the hunchbacked mutant let his thoughts flow free, like water poured onto cobblestones. His mind filled the gaps in dreaming psyches, crept into the spaces between agonies and pained thoughts. With a grimace of effort, he made his psychic presence radiate with a calming flame, more soothing than any anaesthetic.
Creeping from cot to cot, the Askani's "shadow" touched each injured warrior. Those that would make it through the night, he anointed gently with oil from the flask on his belt, whispering a silent prayer in their melodic language. Those whose bodies would fail - those he eased on their way, psychically severing neurons and limbic systems, allowing the body to accept death easily and silently. Waking to lungs full of blood and drowning in your bed was no way for a warrior to die. Better the silence and peace.
None of them would ever know it any other way, not in this lifetime. More hope for it in the next, Blaquesmith reasoned. The fires of war could only be quenched by blood, the Canaanite battle-priests spoke. The hunchback tittered to himself. They focused solely on the physical, while the Askani viewed the war on so many more levels. The physical, the mental, the spiritual, and the temporal. The Mother Askani had told him, so long ago, that even as there had been a time before the rise of the High Lord, there would be time, and life, after it.
With a sigh, Blaquesmith left the tent. The dead would be burned in the morning light, for tonight the only light came from small fires lining the camp's perimeter. Sentries guarded in pairs. One watching their sector of the horizon for movement, the other deep in meditation, probing the astral. Exhaling, Blaquesmith turned for his tent. The day had been long, and dawn would come sooner than anyone would prefer.
Sleep came slowly, with the shadows cast by the watchfires dancing on the walls of his tiny tent. Pillowing his misshapen head on his limber arms, Blaquesmith let his consciousness drift into a dreamless sleep. Some of the Askani were precognitives, 'prophets' whose dreams could shift the outcome of a battle. Yet for their shadow warrior, dreams had been a cancer that he had excised years ago. He had gone to Sanctity, and she had removed his dreams, leaving his sleep black and cold, free of the loneliness and isolation that plaqued his waking hours.
Tonight, though, sleep came with bright flashes, and screaming noise of rockets and the stench of smoke. Blaquesmith opened his eyes, waking to a dream of chaos. He gasped, attempting to collect his thoughts as he struggled for his tunic.
The camp was under attack.
Leaving his tent, he glanced around, leaning on his psimitar in his breathless exertion. The perimeter had fallen, and from his seclusion in the shady rocks, he could see the armor of Canaanite shock troops amidst the spreading blazes.
Reaching out with his mind, Blaquesmith attempted to cleave through the melee of conflicting emotions; panic, rage, fear, despair. It felt like trying to swim through a school of sharks, any weakness would drag him into bloody death.
With a snap, Blaquesmith opened his eyes and raised his psimitar. He surveyed the burning camp with a feeling of clarity. Uttering an Askani battle cry, he ran from the rocks, throwing his body through the flames into the fray.
Today, he reasoned, was as good a day as any to die.
A third soldier, a fourth. Five fell, then six. Seven and eight. Nine and ten. Blaquesmith was beyond rage as he fought. His thoughts flowed like fire, dancing from wick to wick as his blade cut down his foes like wheat. Before one Canaanite could track him, the Askani shadow had slain his gun-mate, and then ended his life. The High Lord's soldiers trained and fought in pairs, forging a bond unbreakable by the forces of combat.
Blaquesmith just liked to think that they died well with a friend, and mused that he would never be able to say the same. An armored foe before him blocked the psimitar's swipe with a shield, only to be stunned by a mental blast. The squat mutant ducked, jabbing his spear under the shield, feeling it strike soft flesh. He twisted, using his low stature for leverage as he jerked the barbed head upwards, channeling searing energy through it, incinerating his foe's heart and lungs. Ripping the weapon free with a cry, Blaquesmith lunged forward once more.
He glanced to his side, and for a moment, sorrow overwhelmed him. He saw the hospital tent ablaze, and could feel the mental cries of the wounded, burning in their beds. Abandoning the slaughter, Blaquesmith sprinted for the tent, attempting to telekinetically quash the flames as he ran. To no avail, he felt the heat licking at his body, singing his tunic as he slashed through the tanned skins and entered the inferno.
No sooner had he reached to unstrap one of the burning wounded from their cot, then a blaster echoed in his ears and he felt the impact in his spine. The shot threw him forward, rolling him across more charred bodies. Screaming in agony, the Askani rose, summoning his inner strength. The Canaanite assassin before him wore flat black armor, the mark of a psi-shielded killer. Blaquesmith grinned, blood staining his lips into a macabre rictus. Then he would die purely by the blade.
Dodging the next shot, the small warrior whirled forward, staff spinning over his head. One swipe cleaved through the barrel of the blaster. The next blow from the blunt end of the psimitar sent it flying. A focused blast of telekinesis crushed the assassin in his armor, blowing him clear of the tent. Struggling to maintain his clarity of thought, Blaquesmith rushed after his foe.
"In the name of the Mother, die!" he cried, stabbing at the crawling form again and again, until it moved no more. Kneeling, he wiped a arm over his face. He felt hot tears sting his cheeks. Sobbing with the force of his rage, Blaquesmith looked about him. Slowly, he rose, seeing more than a dozen Canaanites, armored and armed, closing in on him. He reached out with his mind, and found that amidst his own camp, his own fires... he was totally alone.
Raising two multi-jointed fingers to his forehead in salute, he balanced the haft of his psimitar along his forearm, dropping into a combat crouch. He closed his eyes for a moment, and let the calm sweep over him like a breeze.
"Mother, I beseech you, allow me to die well in your name." he prayed, opening his eyes. With his free hand, he beckoned again.
The first soldier charged, force pike held low. Blaquesmith drove the larger weapon into the ground, whipping the barbed head of his own weapon into his opponent's face, setting it ablaze. He laughed heartily, spinning to face another.
"Come!" he cried. Two rushed, and he found himself forced backwards. His reactions were lightning quick, but then another warrior pressed forward, and he was surrounded. A flurry of blows rained down on him, despite his shielding. The searing heat of an incendiary lance licked along his cheek, peeling back flesh, and Blaquesmith screamed.
A scream louder than his own echoed in his ears, and in his mind. Blaquesmith shifted his senses into the astral reflexively, feeling the harsh wind of rage blow around him. He pushed away from his attackers, looking about him.
Aliya stood in the center of the melee, the third of her opponents falling, sans head, before her. She had smeared charcoal over her face in a war-paint pattern, and the blood of her enemies had given her features a hellish cast. She met Blaquesmith's eyes and raised her psimitar in salute. Nodding, the hunchback raised his own. The girl smiled amidst the carnage and beckoned with her free hand.
Standing back to back with the taller warrior, Blaquesmith let his mind flow around them, feeling the hot redness of her anger, trying to focus and control her feelings, their feelings. Their thoughts were linked while their bodies acted as one. The two became a single fighting machine, whirling and dancing like a zephyr, fighting a battle as if it were already legend.
Clear precision, crimson rage. The two wound around each other faster and faster, until there was no separating where one ended and the other began. And when they struck as one at the final opponent, their battle cries echoed the same across every plane of consciousness. Physical, mental, spiritual - echoing even through time.
The last fires burned themselves out in the dirt. The fight, for the moment, was over.
They had survived.
A new infirmary, old wounds. Blaquesmith winced as the healers applied a compress to his cheek. Across from him, Aliya nursed the reopened wound on her arm, as well as others gained in the battle. In her zeal, she had endured a fractured arm, and kept fighting. Sanctity had praised her valor, and lauded her accomplishments before the entire camp. Blaquesmith, as was his wont, stood apart in the darkness of the rocks. No one would sing his part in the reels that would follow, his name would not be written on any list of heroes. That was simply the way.
"What is, is." Aliya whispered to him. He looked up, meeting her eyes. Seeing recognition there, he nodded. The Askani phrase was the one truth they all knew, stronger than fire, stronger than blood. It simply was.
"You know, Sanctity tells me I shall lead the next vanguard in the assault on the Eiderwood." Aliya murmured. "She reckons that I am ready for a command now."
"Sanctity chooses well. "Blaquesmith replied with a sigh.
"Will I die, do you think?" the young girl looked away, a strange calm settling over her features. "I suppose it doesn't matter. The war will be over, one day. And perhaps children will sing my name, in a legend or two." She met the hunchback's eyes and smiled. "Perhaps they will sing of today."
Blaquesmith chuckled. "Perhaps, and perhaps, child." He fingered the psimitar at his side. "Today, one sings your praises."
Aliya arched an eyebrow. "You? A legend-singer? We should all live to see the day." Her amusement lit up her eyes. Blaquesmith found himself smiling, warming to her. Yes, he thought, she WOULD be a leader. She would be a legend.
"Then I shall tell you your own legend, Aliya of the Fire." he began. "Aliya of the Raging Blade. Aliya... Aliya the berserker." Blaquesmith smiled. "Dancing through the walls of death, laughing at fate."
"Legends do not laugh." Aliya scolded, mockingly. A sound from outside the tent caught both their attention, as they watched through the netted window as the guard fires were once again lit. Outside, there was drink and song and the joy of being alive. Running a hand across his wounded cheek, Blaquesmith smiled at Aliya.
"Today we do, my lady. Today we do."
Today, they had survived. Tomorrow, and the next tomorrow, and the next...
Tomorrow would be.
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